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Dad urges schools to look at employee morale

A concerned parent made an impassioned plea to the Estacada School Board to improve the treatment of staff to stanch the “mass exodus” of district employees and the Estacada School district also detailed some new programs to combat bullying in district schools at the school board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 12.

Ben Erickson, who said his kids were the fifth generation of his family to be educated in Estacada schools, explained he had “serious concerns” about how the district is being run.

Erickson called the reassignment of teachers and administrators a “crazy, carnival, juggling act” that was crushing employee morale and leading to resignations.

“There are a lot of unhappy employees,” Erickson said.

He went on to say that of his children's 21 teachers over the years, 11 of them have left the district. He told the board that at the close of school last year, a teacher recommended he take his children out of the district schools and put them in another school system, such as a web-based school, a suggestion he found sad and upsetting.

The principals at all four schools in the district are new to their jobs this year. This district also just finished a sweeping reconfiguration of the schools, moving sixth grade to the newly renamed Estacada Middle School, closing Eagle Creek Elementary and reopening River Mill Elementary and redrawing school boundaries.

“Why are you forcing teachers and administrators to take positions they are not even interested in?” Erickson asked the board and school administrators.

Erickson's plea to the board, which was delivered calmly and thoughtfully, also criticized the district's poor communication with parents and other stakeholders.

No board members or district employees responded to Erickson at the meeting, which is customary.

But later, superintendent Marla Stephenson told the Estacada News that the district takes Erickson's – and all parent – concerns seriously and noted, “it is always difficult when we have change.”

Stephenson said the district “would maintain focus on our strategic plan...and staff morale is an important component of student success.”

District teachers are represented by the Oregon Education Association, and the OEA consultant to the Estacada district said, “our members are feeling disrespected right now.... Morale is very low.”

The reconfiguration of district schools led to some staff reassignments, Stephenson said, and she admitted “some teachers were very upset.” But, she said, the district has slowed some of the changes to make them less disruptive to families and staff.

“People have become uncomfortable with the pace of change and they have had to make a lot of adjustments,” said Sean Tripp, the Estacada Education Association president and a social studies teacher at the high school.

“We have got a lot of communication that needs to happen over the next month or so,” Stephenson said. But, she said, once the families and staff get to school this fall and get settled, “I think we'll see an easing of the tension.”

Estacada school district is the largest employer in the city. It has 100 licensed staff members, including teachers, and 125 classified staff, including teacher aides, secretaries, and other support staff.

Wednesday night, the all-volunteer school board also heard a presentation from Tina Rhue, director of student services, on reducing bullying.

Last spring, parents raised concerns about bullying in the schools. That led to district-wide meetings and a survey of students, parents and staff about problems with bullying.

Rhue said that the district's survey results, which reflected findings elsewhere, found that 85 percent of students don't engage in bullying behavior or can be taught not to bully. But, about 15 percent of students don't respond to anti-bullying education or positive reinforcement, and do bully other students.

The district is focusing on crafting better strategies to work with that 15 percent of kids who don't respond to the anti-bullying programs already in place, Rhue said.

Rather than impose a one-size-fits-all plan, each school will develop its own age-appropriate strategies and procedures for dealing with bullying. These won't be one-shot events, such as watching one video, but ongoing programs, Rhue said.

In addition, a police officer from the Sandy Police Department will be assigned full-time to the school district as a school resource officer.

“He will be responsible for the safety of all district children,” Stephenson said, but he will be housed at the high school. He will also be available for emergency police calls in Estacada.

The district is evaluating the use of the Safe Schools Alert System, which is an online incident reporting and tracking system. Rhue said that would allow confidential reporting and “a quicker and more consistent response to bullying.”

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